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Privatisation is villain in railway drama

The Permanent Way, by playwright David Hare has ruffled a few feathers in the industry. Ruby Kitching reports.

DAVID HARE'S play The Permanent Way follows the railway industry from just before privatisation in 1996 until today through the eyes of engineers, lawyers, bankers and survivors of four major rail crashes.

The production focuses on the circumstances surrounding the Southall, Ladbroke Grove, Hatfield and Potters Bar crashes.

It examines the causes, through the eyes of key players including deputy prime minister John Prescott, senior managers at rail maintenance companies, engineers and the victims.

The play has not gone down well with some in the rail industry. 'It doesn't really deal with the improvements that the railway industry has made more recently, ' said Railway Forum director general Adrian Lyons.

The Railway Forum represents the views of more than 60 companies in the rail industry.

Director Max Stafford-Clarke and Hare were inspired to produce a play about the railways after reading a book called The crash that stopped Britain by Ian Jack, editor of London literary magazine Granta.

They then researched the play by speaking to the ICE, the Permanent Way Institution, rail crash survivors, British Transport Police, transport correspondents and rail engineers themselves.

Rail engineers told StaffordClark that the period following privatisation was a demoralising one. 'They knew the service they were giving wasn't great, ' he said.

Stafford-Clark also felt that privatisation downgraded the role of the engineer on the one hand and turned them into higher earning consultants on the other. This, he believes contributed to the rising cost of maintaining the railways.

'The play has a political dimension but also points out the damaging effect of making money out of institutions, ' he said.

The play also makes a connection between privatisation and declining safety on the railways, causing the crashes referred to in the play.

Railway engineer Martin Fairbrother saw the play in York.

He says it lacks optimism.

'Railtrack is dead and Network Rail, the Strategic Rail Authority and the Rail Regulator have an opportunity to improve the situation, but this wasn't tackled in the play, ' he said.

Lyons agreed but added that he believes that if engineers want to be portrayed more positively, they should speak out.

'Most engineers live like hermits. The industry forgets the impact it has on society, ' he said.

Stafford-Clark says the play has left a strong impression as it has toured ahead of its London run.

'Over 350 people stayed for the post-show discussion in Bath. Engineers thanked us for saying what we did. They told us that if they'd said some of the same things, they would have been dismissed immediately, ' said Stafford-Clarke.

INFOPLUS The play will run at the National Theatre until 1 May before finishing its nationwide tour on 22 May.

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